|Fantasy Baseball vs. Major League Baseball||| Print ||
Written by Jonathan Leshanski (Contact & Archive) on August 19, 2003
In pondering fantasy baseball and writing columns on the same subject, sometimes we forget to see the forest for the trees. Baseball is a part of American culture, perhaps in a way that almost nothing else besides the flag really is. Fantasy baseball however is a phenomenon that no one has examined from a real psychological, sociological or anthropological view.
No one is quite certain how many people play fantasy baseball (or other types of fantasy ball for that matter) but it has been estimated that roughly 15 million people in the United States actively play or have played fantasy baseball. That is approximately 6% of the US population, which is a staggering figure. Even if half as many people were playing fantasy baseball it would be astonishing. And what is even more startling is that the number is still growing.
In speaking with fantasy players it seems as if many follow their fantasy team but often have given up on their local team. There is a reason for that - in my opinion it is due to the fact that in Major League Baseball there is a lack of balance. On the first day of the season half of the teams were already out of the running. How discouraging is that to the fans of the Padres, Rockies, Brewers, Pirates, Devil Rays, Indians, Orioles, Tigers, Rangers, Mets, Blue Jays, Angels and Reds? They were all basically eliminated from day one.
There are only two teams that have surprised us - Kansas City and the Cubs – that are still in the running. The remainder of the afore-mentioned teams was all but mathematically eliminated before the first pitch was thrown this season (well, some of us thought that the Mets could turn it around). So, how can these fans root more than half-heartedly for their team? Sure we may attend a few special games against rival clubs or to see marquis players when they come to town but, sadly, for the most part, the games become unimportant very quickly. They eventually become nothing more than background noise as we go about our day - only partially listening in the hopes that we can see some stars emerge representing our teams.
Living in New York I am spoiled; the stadiums are only twenty minutes away, but even that seems to be a long trek sometimes when there is nothing to watch. Other than the Mets sucking bottom or the Yankees running away with the division there has been little drama during the last few years. I cannot even begin to comprehend what it is like for a fan that lives one to four hours away from a Major League ballpark and his team is one of the sad few that have absolutely no chance. What incentive is there for that fan to pack up his family, go to a game and spend money? It is difficult to get a child involved in watching a game or following a team that is so bad that they have no redeeming features and are not worth watching. And how many years in a row can fans hear that familiar refrain “there’s always next year”?
Baseball is as much a part of our culture as the stars and stripes and baseball fans have that gnawing urge to be connected to the game. Fantasy ball is something that bonds us to that spirit of baseball despite the quality of the markets we are in. Unlike the fools who run franchises in the majors, when we are playing fantasy baseball we understand that competitiveness counts. Sometimes we don’t figure it out right away, but that allows us to understand what our home teams struggle with. The big difference is that in fantasy ball we all start with an equal footing, except in brainpower, so there is a chance to win or improve every season - no matter what.
Fantasy baseball appeals to our competitive streak and for many of us it has to take the place of a good pennant race or championship run. My favorite teams used to interest me enough to examine the box scores and listen to the interviews, but over the last few seasons there has been no reason to follow them. Without fantasy ball, there would be little reason to pay attention to the game at all.
So instead we focus those energies on our fantasy teams - making trades, using the free agent wire and talking trash with our opponents. It’s a world where all decisions are made by us, not by a GM that is playing with a budget set by a corporate accountant where the primary concern is not the fan - but only maximizing the cash flow to the owner’s pocket. In that way our devotion to fantasy ball is a rebellion – it is a chance for every one of us that plays to show up unsuccessful MLB franchises and to say, “Hey I can do it better!”
Major League Baseball could learn some lessons here; baseball needs competition more than it needs contractions. Fantasy players enjoy large leagues; in my leagues we almost always want more people. It allows us to flex those cerebral muscles in our pursuit of a virtual pennant - more importantly it forces us to do so. Baseball has always been a thinking man’s game and most of us who really enjoy it love it for the strategy, tactics and athleticism.
True, fantasy baseball does not offer us all of the nuances of the real game, but it has its own nuances and its own rules. We have sim leagues available to us when fantasy ball is not enough and we require MLB rules. However it often lacks that level of competition, which drives us to don a team hat and jersey and go out to the ballgame. It’s called entertainment value. Fantasy offers us that - often more so than the real thing. So we root for fantasy teams - some people even watch strangers or “Professional’s” teams on the web in leagues like Tout Wars, LABR, and others. We play because at least we are competitive on opening day.
Watching your fantasy team rise and fall will never replace the artistry of watching a beautiful double play, a diving catch, a long home run, a three base hit, or a no hitter, but for some of us – fantasy baseball is the highlight of the season, because real baseball isn’t always played here.